Traveling Light


It may be too late to arrange a summer vacation to Florence, but if you get to Lincoln Center before Labor Day you can enjoy an imaginative facsimile of the fabled Italian city (and catch a little of Rome, too), via The Light in the Piazza. The stunning recreation, which is scheduled to be on view at the Vivian Beaumont through September 4, is neither altogether literal, nor completely abstract. It is instead the Florence of your fondest hopes and deepest desires, a city steeped in longing and reverie — an ideal setting, in other words, for a musical romance.

The show marks the Broadway debut of composer and lyricist Adam Guettel, previously noted for the stark Floyd Collins, which haunted New York's Playwrights Horizons and Chicago's Goodman Theatre in the 1990s. He and book writer Craig Lucas, whose off-Broadway hit Reckless was revived last season on Broadway, based this show on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer, first published by The New Yorker in 1959.

In the story, which is set in Italy in 1953, Clara Johnson, a carefree American innocent abroad, is romanced by the charming Fabrizio Naccarelli, much to the delight of his adoring family. But Clara's mother, Margaret, keeps a wary eye on the relationship, knowing that the secret of her daughter's wide-eyed wonderment is a brain injury, sustained in a childhood accident, that has stunted her emotional development. Margaret, realizing that the lovelorn Fabrizio represents a chance for lasting happiness for Clara, debates informing the Naccarellis of her infirmity, and faces a few facts about her own staid marriage as a palpable flirtation develops between her and Fabrizio's father.

A film version, with Margaret and Clara sensitively enacted by Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux, was released in 1962. Guettel and Lucas began developing the musical 40 years later, at the Sundance Theater Lab. Two productions — one in June 2003 at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle and another at the Goodman in January 2004 — followed. The development period, during which the design evolved as well, paid off handsomely. The Lincoln Center show proved the critics' darling of the 2004-2005 Broadway season, with the sets, lights, costumes, and sound receiving some of the warmest praise of the year. Set designer Michael Yeargan, who joined the musical in Chicago, received a Drama Desk nomination for his work, as did Christopher Akerlind (lighting), Catherine Zuber (costumes), and Acme Sound Partners (audio), all of whom have been with the show since its Seattle mounting. [Yeargan and Akerlind took home awards.] Its subsequent 11 Tony nominations included nods for Yeargan (his first), Akerlind (his second), and Zuber (her third). [While the Tonys for design this year recognize plays and musicals separately, there is still no category for sound design.]


The Light in the Piazza is a musical that moves, and not just because of its emotional content. Gracefully, the towering arches that define the main piazza setting — which the director, Bartlett Sher, fills with Florentines, including bicyclists, shopkeepers, nuns, and a less upstanding citizen or two — recede into the wings, as other settings are subtly summoned. These include a room in the Grand Hotel, where Margaret and Clara are staying; the Naccarellis' stylish, well-appointed home; a brief sojourn to Rome, where Margaret hopes to cool her daughter's relationship; and the church where Clara and Fabrizio (Matthew Morrison) plan to wed. But these sets, striking for their simplicity and suggestiveness, were not part of the original concept; indeed, while the Seattle production, directed by Lucas, had Akerlind's light, there was no piazza.

“There were no literal architectural pieces,” Akerlind recalls. “There was a big, diagonally raked deck, a very, very long space, with a watercolor scrim in the back and three vertical panels, each about 8' wide, that went all the way up into the masking, which had similar watercolor painting. The three-member band, which grew to four, was also onstage.”

“Adam Guettel and [musical director and co-orchestrator] Ted Sperling were instrumental in getting us involved at a very early stage,” says Nevin Steinberg, one of the Acme Sound Partners. “Technically, there wasn't much in the way of resources and time at the Intiman — we stuck to working with area mikes and ambient effects — but it was a rare opportunity to engage ourselves with the show on an artistic level during the very early stages. This intimacy with the piece and the creative team led to a real unified sense of purpose when we worked on Piazza again at the Goodman.”

Offstage, there were two key changes between the Intiman and the Goodman, which co-produced the show. Sher, the Intiman's artistic director, replaced Lucas at the helm, and he brought in Yeargan to add dimensionality to the settings, which in Seattle had been designed by Loy Arcenas. [In a coincidence, Arcenas' latest off-Broadway design, for the musical Dessa Rose, was on view at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, downstairs from the Vivian Beaumont, when Light arrived at Lincoln Center.] Yeargan, a professor of stage design at the Yale School of Drama, says Light “came out of the blue. I've done a lot of opera; the commercial theatre isn't really my bag. But I've known Bart since he was an associate director up at Hartford Stage. He wanted me to do the show in Seattle, an opportunity I had to turn down due to other commitments. Loy, however, is fantastic. When they decided to move it to the Goodman, Bart called again to say that he was taking over the project and making some changes. Specifically, he said, ‘We didn't have a piazza in Seattle, and it's called The Light in the Piazza, so could you design one for us?’”

“The progression during the productions was that Florence was a real character and there was a desire to literalize that,” Akerlind says. The onstage band, which expanded to 15 members by New York, moved into the pit in Chicago, and has stayed there as a shared vision of Florence emerged. With a bigger budget this time around, and more time and personnel at their disposal, the designers refined the production — Acme experimented with audio effects, Zuber augmented her costumes, and so forth. Still, something was missing. “At the Goodman, the set kind of sat there, static,” Akerlind says. “In New York, it moves quite a bit, with a lovely fluidity, and is the ultimate expression of that character.”

Fitting Florence into the unwieldy confines of the Vivian Beaumont was an immediate consideration when Lincoln Center beckoned. “A bear, a real wrestling match,” Akerlind says. “It's a terrifying space,” adds Yeargan. “And fascinating. I'd done three or four shows at the Metropolitan Opera across the road and the proscenium of this thrust theatre was the same as the Met. I just freaked out. But there's something about having all this space and the smallness of the thrust that makes it very intimate. It's my first time there and anyone who works there owes a lot to John Lee Beatty, who always uses it beautifully [as in last winter's production of The Rivals, with its facsimile of the UK resort town of Bath.]”

“The Beaumont poses significant — and well-documented — challenges for sound reinforcement,” Steinberg says. “The five-sided thrust, and the unusually high trims, are just the beginning. The geometry, particularly for the main floor and its dramatic rake, is simply not working with you. At any given moment, a performer is really only facing about two-fifths of the audience — a basic problem of communication. The orchestra is deeply buried in the pit and aurally accessible to only the middle three-fifths of the house. The acoustic is not particularly friendly to the music or the voice. And speaker positions are less than ideal. It's a real audio riddle. The Beaumont bears a greater resemblance to the Delacorte, where we do Shakespeare in the Park than to the halls Piazza played before, or to any of the theatres in which we have done musicals. It makes you really appreciate a proscenium space. We pored over theatre drawings and the equipment spec for a long time before we felt comfortable with our gear choices. There was real comfort in knowing the people and the expectations that we had established over the couple of years we spent developing our approach to the piece.”


The designers pressed on to find their Florence. “The musical is a dream of the city,” says Yeargan, one that owes something to his period research, a little to his own hazy recollections of Florence from a flood-wracked trip in 1966, and nothing to the film, which eluded the production till it turned up only recently on the Turner Classic Movies channel. “We had established the general principles of the design in Chicago, but it lacked specificity. Bart wanted to sense the scale of Florence, even though it's an intimate piece. The 24' high arches (originally 30', but they had to go under balconies and other structures at the Beaumont) make you feel like you're in a small piazza, not a huge one. Initially, it was the characters who moved in and out of the arches, but that was too limiting. So we wed the big space upstage with the smaller space downstage, which led us into this diagonal configuration, by tracking the two facades on at the beginning, and closing it in and opening it up to invite you in.”

The motion of the pieces was, Yeargan says, “perfectly worked out by Lincoln Center's production carpenter Walter Murphy and Todd Frank and the crew at New Windsor, NY-based Scenic Technologies. When the deck was laid out for the two arcades it was just gigantic; they split and go off and are mechanized to pivot, straight up and downstage, for storage. Those two tracks looked like a runway at LaGuardia and on the other side like one at Kennedy, they were so big.”

Scenic Technologies (which got last summer's Vivian Beaumont production of The Frogs hopping with some moving scenery) installed a 9” deck, containing all the required mechanisms, that lays over the stage deck. “Walter measured the walls within an inch of the sprinkler heads, that's how high we built the scenery,” says Frank. Scenic Technologies, Yeargan says, also painted the sets the precise burnt umber hue of his models and used its water-cutting tools to create — out of quarter-inch steel — a grille that floats in behind Clara during an anguished moment at the church, when the towers close in around her.

“Rose Brand was also fantastic,” Yeargan says. “There's a scrim in the back with a diagonal paint job. With the first one that came in, when backlit on white cyc, we saw all these vertical striations that were caused by the weave itself. Rose Brand generously replaced the scrim, but the same thing happened again. The third time pretty much worked; as it turned out, it was all something to do with the loom in Scotland.”

In Act II, the “moving tower land” of Florence gives way to a brief respite near the Roman forum, where a statue of Narcissus, sourced from Costume Armour, is part of the design. [“The only remnant from the Seattle show is the torso in the Uffizi scenes, a fragment of a Roman soldier,” Yeargan adds.] The designer credits the “unsung” musical staging of Jonathan Butterell for returning the show to Florence. “He has Fabrizio run through the set during the ‘Aiutami’ number, at which point the Florence furniture comes on around the Rome set.”

Following the example of the exteriors, the interior sets are uncluttered, with spare but necessary detailing. “You don't need the whole hotel room or Naccarelli living room,” says Yeargan. “The icons of the bed, the hotel door, and the side table with the phone seemed to do it for the hotel room. For that room, I had in mind the feeling you get from Cindy Sherman photographs, of a woman in a dress at a cocktail table, with a cigarette and a drink. You could suggest the room with a door, a ‘50s light switch, and a vent on top of a wall. We had in mind a shabbier room, but when we discovered that the Grand is the largest and fanciest hotel in Florence we had an opportunity to add in more color and a ton of molding. The Naccarelli apartment, meanwhile, is appointed with beautiful Italian furniture — everyone resisted the gold upholstery on the chairs, but I held onto it because it matched the sunflowers on the other side.”

Yeargan says the other design contributions further animated his own. “The light that cuts through the towers in the church sequence, and the red candles the priest brings on, make it,” he says. “And I had a moment I'll never forget when Cathy's costumes came on the first time. Chris started playing with the lights and the arches and the statues looked so real. We'd evoked spirits.”

Tweaks to the towers during the month of previews before the show opened on April 18 meant that Akerlind had to devise his incantatory illumination around their movement. But he took it in stride. “There was a huge amount of light in some of these scenes that had to be refocused — literally 80% of it changed. Up to three weeks into previews, I was playing catch up with where the towers would ultimately end up. I don't plan a lot of washes, however, and we knew the intention of the movement, so I didn't agonize over it.”

Much of his task was plotting the emotional arc of the lighting. “We avoided making the light and the movement ‘metaphoric’ and instead wove it into the story. The metaphor of the light relates to these wonderful people and this drove my idea as to how to light them. The second act number, ‘The Light in the Piazza,’ has a little modulation in the sky as it's sung, which is my tribute to the title. We were looking for big, romantic, full-stage looks, with the sun coming at the audience from different places, but the light also goes to darker places, as in ‘Dividing Day’ (in which Margaret, alone in her hotel, ruminates over her marriage), where its impact is more psychological.”

Akerlind worked with Lincoln Center production electrician Patrick Merryman and assistant LD Michael J. Spadaro, with units sourced from PRG Lighting. The VARI*LITE VL2000 Washes and Spots were programmed by Victor Seastone, on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® slaved to an ETC Obsession® unit, but the moving towers proved more impressive than the moving lights. “They color-corrected toward straw and warmth, which I needed, but the big light I required just wasn't coming out of them and I had to add some 5K Fresnels. I was shocked that from the trims the intensity wasn't quite as fantastic as I had thought it would be.”


Much of the show's vibrancy derives from Zuber's costumes, particularly Clara's radiant sundresses, in contrast to Margaret's more buttoned-down look and the Naccarellis' cultivated fashion sense, for which Zuber pored over period Italian magazines and Fellini films. “As the show becomes more romantic, the costumes get freer and more relaxed,” Zuber says. “Clara's colors, however, shift away from their initial blues and pinks, as Margaret tries to tone them down and make them less childlike.”

The Light in the Piazza capped a busy Broadway season for the designer, who also costumed Dracula the Musical, the musical Little Women, and Doubt. The preview period, on top of the four or five weeks in the rehearsal hall and two weeks of tech, gave her an opportunity to fine-tune her work. “There's a certain subtlety here. For example, Fabrizio's costumes were conceived for a tortured student, but that wasn't the right direction for him so, as that changed, I put him in white shirts, thin and open, after the first previews.”

Clara's all-important hat, which in a simple, wire-driven effect flies from her head in the first sequence and is retrieved by Fabrizio, setting the plot in motion, also went through a shift. “That hat went through many permutations,” Zuber says. “At first, it looked too much like a farmer's hat, and it ended up being a charming, more sophisticated straw hat.” Zuber was assisted by Michael Zecker, “who shopped the shoes,” and David Newell, “who made sure it all ran smoothly.” The men's costumes were executed by Tim McKelvey, with contributions from Angels the Costumier, Parson-Meares Ltd., Vos Savant, Inc., Euro Co. Costumes, and millinery by Hugh Hanson for Carelli Costumes Inc.


Steinberg says Acme Sound Partners worked closely with Sher and Guettel to create a proper Florentine ambiance within the Vivian Beaumont. “Adam is very outspoken about how he expects his writing to be communicated in the theatre, and he is also an accomplished sound designer and engineer in his own right. So it's an exciting and sometimes overwhelming communication of ideas. The whole soundscape, from the reinforcement to the ambiences and spot effects, is designed to aspire to something musical and romantic, dreamy and transparent, yet contemporary and exceptionally precise. It is a challenge of the highest order for a sound designer.”

Acme rose to the challenge by staying out of everyone's way. “We tried very hard not to distract with equipment or sound,” says Steinberg. “Transparency was important. The ambient effects are rich and layered, but rather subtle and tie very nicely to looks and locations that Michael, Chris, and Cathy established. One favorite is a recording of Florentine bells that recurs in several guises throughout the piece. There are numerous spatial effects as well, all carefully modulated to land softly on the ear but to help take us around the city and its aural environment.” Jeffrey Yoshi Lee was the assistant sound designer, with the audio equipment supplied by Sound Associates.

Regarding his Florentine idyll, Yeargan reports that his toughest critics found something to swoon over while attending The Light in the Piazza. “Some of my students have seen it,” he says. “You're always so nervous showing them your own work. But the ones who made it in during the tech period said, ‘It made me want to go to Italy and fall in love again.’”

Robert Cashill writes on arts and entertainment from New York.

Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind

Associate Lighting Designer: Michael Spadaro

Production Electrician: Patrick Merryman

Head Electrician: Bruce Rubin

Lighting Equipment

65 ETC Source Four® 10° 77V 550W
212 ETC Source Four 19° 77V 550W
170 ETC Source Four 26° 77V 550W
83 ETC Source Four 36° 77V 550W
19 ETC Source Four 50° 77V 550W
90 ETC Source Four PAR NSP 77V 550W
17 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 77V 550W
20 ETC Source Four PAR WFL 77V 550W
14 PAR64 MFL 500W
23 Altman Cue Light 500W with Barn Doors
14 Mini-10 500W without Barndoors
57 3-Cell Far Cyc 1000W
12 5' 6L 3Ckt T3 Striplight 500W
4 96×2.4K ETC Sensor® AF dimmer racks
2 48×2.4K ETC Sensor AF dimmer racks
1 24×20A PD
2 200A 24×20A PD for Automated lights
2 Opto Splitters with (6) outputs
4 Opto Splitters with (5) outputs
2 APC 1000VA (or higher) UPS for lighting consoles
1 ETC Obsession II® 5.1.0
2 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2, version 3.3 build 176
2 15" Flat Panel monitors
1 DMX switch to toggle between active and backup Wholehog (3 Universes)
2 Midi on/off switch to enable and disable Obsession link
9 VARI*LITE VL2000 Wash 700W
12 VARI*LITE VL2000 Spot 700W
6 Martin Mac 2000 Performance 208V, 1200W Short Arc HMI Lamp

Audio Equipment List

Cadac J-Type Console
Sennheiser SK-5012 Transmitter/EM-3532
Wireless Receiver
DPA 4061 LAV Microphones
Stage Research SFX Pro Audio Show Control for Playback

FOH Processing: XTA DP-200 Insert Delay/EQ; Valvotronics Gain Ryder Tube Comp/Limiter; t.c. electronic M-3000 digital effects processor.

Orchestra Microphones: DPA 4041-SP; DPA 4021; Accusound Violin and Cello models; Neumann U-87; AKG 415-B-ULS; Sennheiser MKH-800, MKH-40

Loudspeakers: Meyer MSL-2A, UPA-1C, UM-1C, USW-1, UPA-1P; d&b Audiotechnik E-3; EAW JF-60; Apogee SSM

Amplifiers: Crown MA3600-VZ; Yamaha H-7000, H-5000

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